Category Archives: General musings

Flirting with carbon

As a concept, I like carbon fiber bikes. Super light, agile, responsive, shock absorbing, extremely strong. Yes, sure, I’ve seen lots of pictures of busted up frames in millions of pieces, because when carbon fails it’s not pretty. But if you hit something hard enough to shatter your carbon frame, I kinda think the bike is going to be the least of your problems.

On my quest for a new “fast bike,” a rode a lot of carbon bikes. Generally I was looking in the $2000-$2500 range, which, believe it or not, is on the lower end for carbon bikes. But the bikes ranged in price from $1,600 to almost $5,000. I stuck with the “endurance” category, which is more for the type of riding I do, commuting and the occasional all-day super long ride. The geometry is less aggressive than your all-out race bikes, which is great for me. I’m not a racer, and don’t plan on racing anyone, unless it’s to the bathroom.

There are tons of bikes in this category now, and I rode a lot of them. Specialized, Trek, Felt (several types), Cannondale, Giant, Bianchi.
Out of that bunch, I liked the Felt Z4 the best. It came in at a lower price than most of the others, and had a supple ride quality that I found intriguing. I didn’t test it, but the new Z4 for 2015 comes with disc brakes, which are starting to be more common on road bikes.

The Bianchi wasn’t bad, although I didn’t much like how the brakes felt, same with the Cannondale. And I just have a thing about Specialized and Trek, seems like they cost more just for the labels.

But here’s the thing I discovered. Carbon doesn’t make me happy. The performance gain is indisputable, but I just don’t like how the frames feel on anything but a perfect road surface. And we don’t get a lot of that around here. When the bumps come, the carbon bikes just feel plasticky and a little cheap, kinda like when you were a kid, riding a Big Wheel on your neighbor’s crappy driveway. I know all the specs are better, but when I’m plunking down 2-3k, I don’t want it to feel like a Big Wheel.

Which is too bad, really. Because I like the idea of a super light, modern, zippy bike. I just don’t like riding any of them all that much. Turns out I’m pretty much a straight-up steel guy. It’s taken me about five years to realize this, but there you have it.

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Civia Bryant, two years later.

It’s been two years since I bought the Bryant (and since I last posted on this blog). But weirdly enough, somebody still reads the blog once in awhile (thanks Wayne). And I’ve come to another key moment in my cycling life. So here goes:

I feel like the Bryant and I, while we’re a pretty good match, are not quite gelling. Put it this way: I’m ready to see other bikes. The Bryant was never really intended to be my primary bike, just for when the weather’s wet and the commute’s rough. But then I broke my Scott. The summer bike. The fast(er) bike. I don’t even know how. It happened at some point during RSVP, the ride from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. When I got home I discovered another kink in the downtube, which on an aluminum frame means it’s toast. I didn’t even bother getting a crash replacement frame again. This is the second time it’s happened, so I’m done with aluminum. And with Scott, for that matter. I don’t think I could ever trust a Scott frame again.

So that left me with the Civia as my sole ride for the past year.

I spent a lot more time on it, especially since we moved. My commute is now a couple of miles longer, and it’s got a lot more hills. And the Civia doesn’t especially like hills. It’ll grudgingly accept them. But it’s not happy on them. I know, I know, you’re thinking, it’s not (the bike), it’s me. Which could be. I don’t think we quite fit right. It’s designed for someone a little wider. My legs feel a little splayed out on the thing. I could fix this with a narrower crankset, but there aren’t that many choices for a Gates carbon belt. The Alfine hub as proved a little finicky to keep adjusted correctly, and the Avid BB5 brakes are not the greatest disc stoppers out there.

So while it’s been a very solid, faithful steed, there are just enough little irritations to keep me from falling in love with it. I think with another four hundred bucks or so, I could get it sorted out a little better, drop some of the weight and get it close to perfect.

But I don’t think I’m going to do that now. Especially since I’ve found…. well, stay tuned.

Defeating the Devil, courtesy of Rivendell bikes


Rivendell's A. Homer Hilsen. Thanks Homer!

So we went down to the Bay Area last week to “visit my mother-in-law.” That was the excuse, but I had a secret agenda. I wanted to beat the Devil. Aka, Mt. Diablo, the sloping, 4,000 ft behemoth that looms over the East Bay. There’s a winding road that goes all the way up to the summit, and when we lived there in the early ’90s, I would sometimes ride up a few of those 4,000 feet. But I never could make it above the foothills that surround it. Lapping at the toes of the beast, as it were.

In terms of elevation gain, it’s not a simple goal. It’s more climbing in 10 miles than the entire, 200-mile Seattle-to-Portland ride. Plus I had a big disadvantage: I didn’t bring a bike.

Silly me, I thought I could just rent one. Turns out nobody rents road bikes in the East Bay. Enter Rivendell Bicycle Works, which happens to assemble their beautiful, lugged steel bikes in Walnut Creek, very close to Grandma. I’ve been stalking their website for a while, because they have great bikes, accessories, and lots of interesting bike info.

They don’t rent bikes either. But I told them about my quixotic, unfulfilled quest to ride up the Devil, and they said, well just take a bike. And bring it back before the shop closes. No charge. And just like that, they set me up on a gorgeous A. Homer Hilsen road bike, and there I was, on my way up the mountain.

Now, Rivendell is one of those bike companies with a very distinctive viewpoint. They use lugged, steel frames (lugs are connectors that join steel frame tubes; you don’t see them much on modern bikes, but vintage bike fans love them.) Their bikes are not light, they use big tires and heavy wheels, and more upright positioning than you’d ever see on a current race bike.

By most conventional thinking, this is not what you’d want for going straight up for 10 miles. You’d want some sort of featherweight carbon thing than weighs less than an average bowling ball. But it turns out the Homer was perfect. Mt. Diablo’s roads are not smooth, and at times they’re scarily narrow, with significant, humility-inducing drops off the side. And the big tires and steel frame soak up these kinds of conditions beautifully. The Homer is a stable, very comfortable ride, wonderfully suited for ambling up dicey roads.

Yes, it’s heavy, but it’s also got a triple-crank, and even though I was going to tough it out in the middle ring, I dropped that idea after about 800 feet of climbing and got down to the granny gear, and I was grateful to have it, thank you very much.

I stayed in the wimp ring for the rest of the climb, and yes, there were a few spandexed racer dudes that zipped by me, and more power to them. I was going to take it slow. I stopped to take pictures, because the view is breathtaking. Which is not saying much, because I didn’t have much breath left to take, but what there was…. you get the idea.

One of the carbon dudes, who actually looked like he was in his 60s, (Dear Lord, please let me be in shape like that when I hit my 60s), took a break with me and warned me about the summit. The last 100 feet or so is the worst stretch, a 15-degree pitch, he said. Which is not what you want after climbing 3,900 feet.

After that warning, I decided to take a more philosophical approach. Enjoy the scenery as much as possible. Go pretty slow, save the breath. Get as far as possible, and if I didn’t make it, well, I’d come back better prepared next time.

Before I knew it, I was near the summit, staring at that 15-degree pitch. The road split into two, narrow one-ways, and I cranked down into my last gear and went for it. Very slowly. Before long I heard a car come up behind me, and I had to pull over to the gravel to let it go by. Just when I slowed, my left leg completely seized up in an excruciating cramp.

I think I frightened some German tourists with my cursing. Here I was, about 50 feet from fulfilling a nearly 20-year quest, and my leg gives out. 50 stupid, idiotic feet! So I stood there, straddling the bike, cursing at my leg until I could bend it again. Fuck you leg! Bend! The leg relented. I got back on the bike. You can’t really crawl on a bike, but that’s what that last 50 feet felt like.

But I made it. Homer got me up there. The ride down was obviously a whole lot faster, and the handling of that bike was stable, smooth and surprisingly nimble.

I still can’t believe those Rivendell guys, who don’t know me at all, just let me walk off with their bike. They even gave me a Rivendell cap when I got back (five minutes before the shop closed). Thanks Rivendell, for helping me beat the Devil, after all these years.

I don’t want to pick a tribe, but…

Cyclists can be a hard-core lot, especially when it comes to defending their tribes. The Upright Woolies wouldn’t be caught dead in Lycra, and the Spandex Ballet dancers would never go near a piece of tweed. The Flower Girls love their wicker handlebar baskets and pastel frame colors, and the Fixerati love their stripped-down, one-gear specials.

Rarely do the tribes cross lines. I tried to resist pidgeon-holing, but it’s too late. I like my spandex, and my drop-bar road bike. I like my bikes fast and light, and I wish I could afford a racier one. Totally Spandex Ballet. The trouble is, that whole concept is not so ideal for commuting to work through a Northwest winter, when most of the other Spandex Ballet-ers are inside on their flow trainers. A pseudo-racing bike is not what you want when you’re slushing through leaf-paste on a questionably paved trail.

So I thought about crossing over. I don’t think the Flower girls would take me, and certainly the Fixerati wouldn’t. But the Upright Woolies … why not? They ride more practical machines, typically steel, with big tires, big fenders, racks and baskets. And the truth be told, a lot of those guys are faster than I am, even with all that extra weight and the challenged aerodynamics of flapping wool jackets. There must be some finely tuned calf muscles under all those natural fibers.

My problem is, I hate their bikes. I respect them, I get the purpose and the whole aesthetic, and I keep looking at them, thinking I could make it work during the winter at least.

But today I took a look at a nice steel bike, internal gear hub, racks, fenders, wide tires, leather Brooks saddle. Perfect for winter. And I just shook my head. There was no way in hell I was going to get on that thing. Sigh.

OK, check that one off the (non-existent) list

The other day my wife and I were talking about the notion of the “bucket list.” And she said, “I don’t get it. If you don’t want to do something before you die, then you really don’t want to do it.”

Which I thought was an excellent point. In any case, I don’t have a bucket list. I generally take things one at a time. This year, I wanted to ride my bike from Seattle to Portland in one day. 205 miles. I’ve been working for this since January. Planning ride calendars, working out the right ride food and drink, coordinating busy schedules, seeking out a bunch of help, from among others, a physical therapist, a bike fitter, a personal trainer and of course, family and friends. The last 10 weeks or so I really upped the game, extending my miles, pushing myself until I bonked several times, doing strength and flexibility training every week.

And it all came good Saturday evening, when I crossed the finish line and saw my wife and kids waiting for me with Hooray Dad! signs and huge smiles. This was a Top Five moment, for sure.

It was a long day: started at 5:15 a.m., finished about 7:30 p.m., which is a long time to be on anything, never mind pedaling a bike.  But I felt great. Certainly there were some low points: the part where I had to let the faster guys in my group go, the one flat tire, the part where we had to leave some of our guys behind. When my stomach finally said “will you stop sending down this crap?” after about the 10th packet of GU.

But the lows weren’t that bad at all. And the highs were great. Zipping out of Seattle with the paceline, practically flying through the morning air. Whooshing through the forest on the trail between Yelm and Tenino in a pack of about 30 riders, the closest thing to the Tour de France I’ll ever experience.  Every time I told myself to stop worrying, look up and enjoy the sometimes spectacular views. Rainier looming overhead, Mt. St. Helens, and then Mt. Hood. Crossing the bridge over the Willamette River into the heart of Portland, during the “golden hour” of sunlight. And that moment when I realized I was going to finish the way I wanted to, feeling strong, and still in daylight.

It was definitely worth the work. Yes, it was a selfish endeavor, but the family and plenty of friends really pulled for me. And I hope the kids got a good lesson on achieving a tough goal.

Here’s what I learned too. You don’t have to accept the idea that something like arthritis is slowly going to take away your mobility and strength. When I started all this, I thought I could do it, but I also thought I was going to wreck my knees in the process. Instead, they feel better than they have in years. So does the rest of me. You can fight back. You can find new sources of strength. I made it to Portland in a day. But I’m just starting to realize what else I gained. My three-year-old asked me, “Daddy, did you win?”

Yes. We did.

The Pity Burger (and other signs of benevolence in the universe)

Last week I went on a training ride, a very long, 100-mile training ride. It didn’t go well. It was my first serious ride after being laid up with the flu for a week, and I think I got ahead of myself. But whatever. Up until this point, I had felt great (well, “great” is a relative term, which in this case means “feeling less severe pain than I feared”) on every tough ride I’ve tried.

Until last week, my training had been going really well. I’ve been getting stronger, faster, all that six-million-dollar man stuff. Sunday, I got schooled. I rode from my house in north Seattle to Puyallup, which for those of you, (probably the one of you), who is not from here, is a long way. With long stretches of nothing. Energy-sucking nothing.

Once in awhile, when I’m out on the trail, I run across a cyclist or two who is clearly struggling. I try to offer a word of encouragement as I zip on by. I never know whether that’s actually encouraging, or whether the guy I’m passing is like, “thanks buddy, screw you.” I choose to believe the former.

This time, it was me. About 75 miles in, I was deeply questioning the point of all this, in a kind of oxygen-deprived, red-faced, nihilistic festival of self-pity. It must have been pretty evident too, because a couple in an Acura pulled up next to me, rolled down the window and said, “Hey man, you need a burger? It’s healthy!” Yes, I was in such miserable shape that complete strangers were offering to give me their drive-thru food. The Pity Burger.

I politely declined, and at first my mental reaction was something like, “What, do I look like a charity case out here? Am I really that pathetic?” But I realize that reaction was entirely wrong-headed. Now I choose to interpret the offer as a benevolent sign from the universe.

I.e., when you are on your last dregs of energy and hope, someone, even someone completely unknown to you, might offer to give you a Pity Burger. And if this ever happens to me again, I will take it.

My aforementioned goal is to get from Seattle to Portland in one day. This ride is six days away now. After my 100-mile debacle, I had begun to have serious doubts. But how can I not make it, when the universe is going to drop cheeseburgers on me?

That, my friends, is special sauce. Portland or bust, baby.


Get fit: the slow and arduous way!

A rare bit of sun on the trail this week

Bright thing in sky! What is it?

It has not been an easy two weeks to be persistent about cycling. Slushy rain, crazy wind, one day with gusts up to 40 mph. I gave up half way that day, and jumped on a bus. But I had second thoughts. The bus took twice as long.

This evening, with a steady freezing rain and hardly any wind, seemed like a relative walk in the park.

But I am training for the Seattle to Portland ride in July, and I’m never going to get there if I let a little windy rain stop me. I logged 72 miles of riding this week, eight short of my training schedule. Next week I need to hit 100.

Yes, I know I sound a little nuts. I get lots of “You’re crazy,” or, “You’re going to ride home? Today?” But I have gotten to insanity slowly, bit by bit. First I rode a few times a month. Then a few times a week, usually half of my commute by bike, half by bus. Now I’m riding every day, going the entire route from Redmond to Seattle about half the time. I’m adding miles every week.

During my gradual ramp-up, I’ve learned the routes, I’ve learned more about my bike, I’ve learned to match my clothes to the weather, and I’ve learned how to be safer (Blinkies, Wayne!). And I’m in much better condition. I still have a long way to go on the fitness front, but I know how I’m going to get there. And it’ll be slow going, just like it has been up to now.

I’m a reverse infomercial: Get fit slow! Take forever to lose weight! Let’s see where you are in two years! But I figure gradual change has a better chance of sticking. I take a very long term view, i.e., what’s important is reversing trends. I was probably gaining about two pounds a year. Not much, but add that up over five years, or 10. Not pretty. If I reversed that trend, I’d be back to college weight in 10 years. Not that I really want to be that skinny again, but you get the point.

It’s worked so far, about 9 months into the plan. I let you know if it really worked in about two more years. Maybe three. In the meantime, if you want to let me know what’s working for you, chime in…

Chilly, hilly and kinda thrilly

On the ferry for the Chilly Hilly bike ride

For the Chilly Hilly on Bainbridge Island, you take a ferry with a few thousand other folks

Last weekend was my first test to see if all the commuting over the winter had paid off with better fitness. It was the first big ride of the season, the Chilly Hilly ride around Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound. It’s not a really long ride, around 33 miles, but it is as advertised, both chilly and hilly, with about 2600 feet of climbing. This year was the coldest so far, with temps hovering around the freezing point, and spurts of rain and even snow flurries. Can I get some fries with that?

My friend Erwin got me into this ride a few years ago, and I did the first one with no training and a mountain bike with knobby tires. Not intelligent. It killed me. Even though we took a shortcut and sliced off the last 10 miles. The next year was a little better, I put slicks on the mountain bike and rode the whole way, but one of the last hills on the ride broke me. I was emotionally bankrupt just from looking up at the bottom of the hill. I made it up, but barely.

Last year I upgraded to the road bike, and did it much faster, much better, but still found myself huffing and puffing on the hills, getting encouragement from people who were at least twenty years older. Better, but still embarrassing. “Keep at it sonny, you’ll make it…”

I finished the ride, and plopped down on a curb at the finish next to a guy with a high-end race bike, who looked just as exhausted as me. “Man,” I said, “that really wiped me out.”

“Yeah, me too,” he said. “I was going to go around the course three times, but I had to stop at two.”

So yes, he had done 66 miles in the time it had taken me to do 33. Nice!

This year, well, I can say there was some improvement. I think I could have beat that racer dude. And by “beat” I mean I could have finished one lap before he finished two. Maybe.

The hills didn’t seem so bad this year, nothing much worse than what I handle on the daily commute back up Mt. Ballard. Still some huffing and puffing, but not that kind of, “Oh god who took the air I’m rolling backwards look out below” kind of huffing. I think my general philosophy is paying off, which is that a lot of little rides builds up your fitness much more effectively than a long ride, uh, once a month. Maybe.

Yes, I need to do some more work, more training. I have my sights set on the STP (Seattle to Portland) ride this summer, which is two days, 100 miles each day. My lofty goal is… to finish.

And I’ve got a little more motivation now. The second car just died. RIP, off to car heaven. And I don’t want to get another one. More on that later…




Clowns to the left of me, bikers to the right

Must... get... to... work...

Must... get... to... work...

The back-up Trek is a bomber, a heavy, lumbering thing with balloonish tires that meander down the road like a float in the Macy’s day parade. Riding it, I feel like a giant, inflatable cartoon character, loosely tied to my vehicle by ephemeral strings and bamboo poles. I can practically see the clown cars passing beneath me.

But all those absorbent qualities also suck up road imperfections and noise. It’s a smooooth ride, blissfully silent save for the almost reverent whirring of the gears. The silence is especially impressive in the dark of the early morning, when sounds are so close that my breath drowns out everything else. In the damp dark, with my lights trained ahead, I almost feel like an invader, a kid cutting through a fresh field of black snow. But I don’t leave a trail. The dark swallows up any trace of me.

In the course of my ride the day starts, headlights retreat to pinpoints and the surroundings emerge. Other people emerge too, converging on the path and bringing edges of reality with them. Their tribes are evident on the path, the fixie tribe, the blinky people, the students, the athletes, the greasers, the soces. I float by them, pulled by my invisible clown car, on my way for the bus and the bridge and the highway and the office to swallow me up and deposit me into my worker tribe.

The clown car will have to wait outside.

Gore-Tex, Frankincense and Myrrh

Gore-Tex socks!Up here in the Top Left Corner, Gore-Tex has a status that borders on the near-mythical, a lust-inducing elusiveness not unlike  silk to the Roman Empire. We build temples to it (REI), swath our newborns in it, pin our jackets up on exposed hooks like tapestries, alerting all who visit to our status. If the three wise men had come from Seattle, they would have gifted the Baby Jesus a polar fleece pullover,  sweat-wicking compression tights and a Gore-Tex jacket.

I have no idea how they make the stuff, but I picture tiny darkened rooms filled with miniature animatronic worms, munching on sheets of raw carbon fiber and spinning out strands of waterproof, breathable, miraculous fabric.

But socks? Gore-Tex socks? Really? In a way, this strikes me as the height of semi-athletic indulgence, something on the order of a gold lamé jock strap or a cashmere ace bandage.

But yes, I want them. Biking in the winter is a lesson in protecting extremities. You can live with cold legs, arms and torso, but cold, wet hands and feet? That’s misery. Gore-Tex socks means salvation from wet feet, no matter what kind of shoe you’ve got.

I haven’t tried them yet. But it won’t be long. Thanks to my friend Eric for the idea.

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